Seol Kwon may be an abstract artist, but she started painting to solve a real-world problem. Kwon was born in Korea in 1972 and was raised in the United States. Her earliest pictures were portrait-like, she explains in this interview, and were created to help her find her own place in a society where feminine, Asian faces like hers were a relatively rare sight.
Those nascent visual investigations have developed into far more nuanced, mature works, which grapple with the themes of gender, race, consumerism and political identity, while also drawing on biological and scientific forms.
Kwon took her BFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a Postgraduate degree in New Media Art at the Haute Ecole D’art et Du Design, Geneva; and has shown extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. Today she lives in Switzerland, and draws artistic guidance from such greats as Louise Bourgeois, Marilyn Minter and Bronzino.
Collectors may also detect echoes of Lawrence Weiner and Jean Arp in her carefully formed, highly colored works, which may still mimic portraits, but never completely resolve into figurative compositions.
Kwon is one of many contemporary artists who have chosen to offer their work directly via Artspace, as part of our Artist Direct program. We spoke to Kwon about her ambitions for her work, her hopes for the future, her own artistic practice, and the remarkable piece of museum architecture that first set her on a path to becoming a fine artist.
SEOL KWON – Affect of Snow, 2021
How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it? As lush colorful abstractions, which initially seem to be solely painterly and expressive gestural marks, but are, upon closer inspection, fine lines and tiny circles which create luminous and voluminous forms. The expressions of concentrated energy and shapes can be simultaneously interpreted as cellular microcosms and universal macrocosms.
I also integrate neon elements, sometimes as abstractions, sometimes as descriptive lines that complete an elusive figurative portrait. These surprising, luminescent, neon elements add another dimension and mystery, speaking to the conflict of human-cyborgian contemporary life and light of the digital dimension.
There are references to the ratio of the gold spiral, divine proportions which can be found in nature, and cross sections of DNA to speak to a certain universality within the paintings as patterns, colors and luminescent neon lines.
These create archetypical forms that can be read as a recorded conversation between the artist and canvas about experimentations in deep consciousness and the resonant patterns in existence.
What made you want to become an artist? My earliest creations were portraits of female faces as a child. It was my way of trying to understand and manifest a reflection of myself which was not visible in the world around me. Being almost the only one with an Asian appearance in a black and white community made it a struggle for me to try to accept and depict the eyes. I always made them ’western’ looking, as that was mostly what I saw around me. To make eyes which looked like mine, without feeling shame, was the first impulse that drove me to draw.
The exact moment when I knew I must become an artist, was when I was completely gripped and entranced by an artwork in the Denver Art Museum. I couldn’t believe art could be so beautiful. Then I realized with much mortification and humiliation, that it was not a ‘real artwork’ but a window which was covered and emanating a glowing light. Today I know, it wasn’t just any window, it was Gio Ponti! The building was the artwork.
SEOL KWON – Nothing will be better tomorrow than it is today, 2022
What are the things going on that are inspiring you right now? A societal shift from globalism to nationalism. This invokes me to even more deeply seek threads of commonality in the human experience. I’m a student of Carl Jung.
What are the most interesting things that people say to you about your work? That it stays in their memory. That it is striking. That it is positive and evokes joy. That they enjoy watching it shift during different times of the day.
Feminism plays a big role in an understated way in your work. What elements are you particularly interested in? The liberation of identity without reference to the traditional means of subjugation.
SEOL KWON – I held out two fists in front of him, 2022
Where do you fit in, who do you think you belong alongside? In terms of artistic temperament, Louise Bourgeois for her rebelliousness and commitment to the magic of her childhood. With the artistic practice, Marilyn Minter because she took the trajectory of the long-distance run and was willing to work a day job in order to not compromise her work for the marketplace. And for aesthetic impact – not the subject matter or skill – Bronzino for how he engaged viewers to look deeply into the details of his portraits, where shape is given by color creating the form, not the inverse. It consequently is able to imbue, in a uniform surface, a multitude of textures and a sense of wonderment.
Could you describe your process and how it works? My process isn’t typical, yet it can be methodical and meditative. Planning what tools I have on hand and my psychological mindset is important to how I begin. Then I take a leap into the void. In the beginning, I force myself to relinquish control, and from that point onwards, use that initial impulse to have a conversation, shaping a message through layers, texture transparency, colors, and the search for a certain proportional code. I revisit things for months, and at times years, until it tells me it’s finished.
Can you tell us a little about three of your works on Artspace? Affect of Snow and Record Cover Eye are almost a diptych, and both are neo-portraiture in that they speak to a space which is simultaneously about internal psyche and external landscape and digital vs. natural light. Wind, turning water into the speed of light was made in a highly concentrated moment. For me it’s like a cross between Jean Arp and Lawrence Weiner if he didn’t use text.
Do you collect art yourself ? Yes, mostly contemporary women artists and decorative design objects from the modern era. At a certain point I realized that it’s possible, if one looks hard enough, to get something by the living artists who have truly impacted my life trajectory, even if it’s something very small or modest, as a totem. It keeps me from becoming overly narcissistic. The last thing I got was a print by Marc Bauer of Queen Elizabeth waving to a crowd.